02.07.2015

Denying Parity Ruins Much

News from Russian-language Facebook front

Commentary

M o s c o w -- The Charismatic and Pentecostal cause took a hit when Gennady (or Gennadiy) Mokhnenko declared on Ukrainian television that, if given the chance, he would personally liquidate Vladimir Putin. See it for yourself under: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ2qaLqsjzs&sns=fb. Mokhnenko is a Pentecostal pastor and leading figure in his country’s “Ukraine without Orphans” movement. (See our report from 15 June 2011.) Living in the embattled city of Mariupol, he and his spouse have adopted around 30 orphans; most of the sons are now involved in voluntary military efforts or are themselves soldiers. 

This adoption movement ended a major phase of its round-the-world bicycle tour with a tour from Moscow to Vladivostok ending in August of last year. Only days after returning home to Ukraine, Mokhnenko and his colleagues made a series of anti-Russian statements. In September, the “Russia without Orphans” movement broke official ties with its Ukrainian partner. This placed the loyal Russian Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the large “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), in a bind, for his support of Mokhnenko’s project had helped make the tour through Russia possible. One of Ryakhovsky’s letters of support is shown in the propaganda flick listed above. In late March, Ryakhovsky attempted to extricate himself further with a statement ending all support for the Ukrainian partner. Alexander Dvorkin, the controversial and conservative Orthodox specialist on the sects, assured in the above film that although Ryakhovsky may be attempting to prove his loyalty, Pentecostals will change political course whenever the need arises.

A piece written by Mokhnenko and posted on his Facebook page on 2 June is entitled: “Better with ‘Right Sector’ than with ‘Leftist Sectarians’”. It reads in part: “At a time when young guys . . . are dying to protect me, my children and my city, a portion of the Christians in Russia and elsewhere are dumping filth on me because I dare to do something to protect my country from Russian aggression. But let me inform you: You are not my brothers! You are leftists; you are not Christians, but rather pacifist and pharisaic sectarians. . . . My guys’ prayers are not as eloquent as those of you pseudo-Christians, but these are my brothers!” He thereby quotes Matthew 12:50: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” A photo shows Mokhnenko in clerical garb embracing Right Sector fighter “Cherven”. The piece is currently blessed with 889 “likes”. Right Sector is generally seen as the most clearly fascist of Ukraine’s larger political groupings. Its head, Dmitro Yarosh, is reputed to be a powerful adversary of President Poroshenko.

Elsewhere on his Facebook page, Mokhnenko describes Russians as “bastards”, “animals”, “scum” and “gangsters”. But it is obvious from the responses that not all Ukrainians agree. Mokhnenko does remain a close friend of the well-known Slaviansk Pentecostal Peter Dudnik. Mokhnenko is invited to speak in Dudnik’s church and the two appear jointly on TV. In my interview with him on 1 April, Dudnik had stated: “If your heart harbours hate, then the devil has already neutralised you. . . . If hate has taken hold of their hearts, then they are nothing more than spiritual corpses.” (See press release of 21 April.) While remaining an ally of Mokhnenko, Dudnik tells me that he still ascribes to this position. I do not support such a stance, but I understand the difficulty of saying “no” to a close friend.

Vladimir Dubovoy (also “Volodimir Dubovii”) reports that he is pastor of the “Spasa Christa” Baptist congregation in Kirovograd/central Ukraine. On Facebook he shows himself in the company of tanks. By quoting from the film “American Sniper”, he essentially calls for the extermination of all men loyal to Russia. His Facebook page also demonstrates that he is vehemently anti-gay. My attempt to converse with him was not successful.

Facebook and beyond

On 10 May, Igor Bandura, the Nr. Two in the hierarchy of the Ukraine’s Baptist Union, shared a Russian-language piece on Facebook with a title worth remembering: “Commentary from Hell. Why We Hate Each Other so Much on the Internet.” Why is it that the least private of human inventions, the Internet, awakens the most base of human instincts? How can it so quickly turn followers of Jesus into spiteful trolls? What appears on the social networks will be stored for decades on hard drives and servers throughout the globe. Yet even clergy will express views there which most of us would be embarrassed to share with our own spouses.

Russian Baptist Facebook is not like Ukrainian Baptist Facebook: The Ukrainian one is more political. Though not very active, the Facebook pages of Bandura and Ukrainian Baptist president Valery Antoniuk are both highly political. See also the independent Baptist bishop Anatoly Kalyuzhny. Surprisingly, Russia’s “Nr. Two Baptist”, Senior Vice-President Sergey Sipko’s page, is also political - but not on the Kremlin’s terms. On 3 June Sipko describes the Russian take on the Crimean takeover and the shootdown of the Malaysian airliner as “obvious lies”. He complains of Russian countersanctions and the fake (too-young) WW II veterans on May 9. Barely political are the pages of his father, ex-Baptist president Yuri Sipko, and of Vitaly Vlasenko, Baptist Director of External Affairs. The same is true for the pages of current Russian Baptist president Alexey Smirnov.

After reporting on a top-level reception in the Kremlin on 12 June which he had attended, Vitaly Vlasenko was described as “Putin’s prostitute” and “Judas” on Facebook. Sadly, Western-evangelical consensus does not tolerate loyalty – let’s call it “critical solidarity” - on both sides of the barricades. Vladimir Putin is some form of Hitler, while the government of Pavlo Poroshenko is a democratic expression of Western civility. A Ukrainian evangelical may be chief spy, state president or head of military security (the Baptist Oleksandr Turchinov has been all three), but a Russian evangelical is already in deep trouble after having supper in the Kremlin. Russian believers are accepted as legitimate only if they too combat, or at least criticise, the Putin administration. This denial of parity serves as a massive wall, hampering any chance of serious understanding between the churches of Russia and Ukraine. This denial ignores the fact that all forms of government are fallen in the eyes of God.

Though most of my reading on politics is from Western sources, I am frequently accused of being the Kremlin’s spokesperson. My critics understand themselves as free, independent and conscientious observers. But as I have claimed repeatedly: We are all endangered by propaganda. That’s life! Parity would demand that the views expressed by serious observers on both sides are regarded as legitimate and not defamed a priori.

The Maidan movement is compromised by its attachment to the global US plan to encircle and push back Russia. Pro-Maidan Christians therefore need to be aware of the consequences of their loyalties in the world’s other half (or two-thirds). A Christianity coupled ideologically to the USA and Maidan has little future in Russia and most of Asia. That’s why some of us on this end go to the trouble of writing.

Perhaps the Ukrainian struggle is much like the struggle for Ireland a century ago. The big British neighbour to the east thought everyone was British. A remnant of those in the north of the island of Eire agreed and broke off to form a separate political entity (Northern Ireland). They had armed conflicts about that, too, but fortunately without major foreign interference.

As a life-long Anabaptist, I have theological differences with Illinois’ “Slavic Gospel Association”. But I do applaud their efforts to stay clear of politics. This allows them to work peacefully in both Russia and Ukraine. Pentecostal Moscow pastors such as Mats-Ola Ishoel and Rick Renner (a US-citizen) follow the same policy. Their approach may be imperfect, but they are at least practicing parity. (On the level of laity, I would prefer a multi-partisan but political approach.)

The competition is not entirely wrong

Much has been made of the fact that (Moscow Patriarchy) Orthodox priests in Slaviansk a year ago were saying their prayers around the corner from Eastern tanks blasting away at Western Ukrainian positions. But Ukrainian evangelicals have been blessing the war effort too.

Pentecostals (and Adventists) in Ukraine and Russia have been quick to become politically partisan. I surmise this may be especially true among younger Charismatics lacking long-term church socialisation. Becoming believers only since 1990, they never were on the receiving end of religious repression and never did live aloof from society. However, the Orthodox are also present on both sides of the barricades. If you go by the numbers, the biggest church rift of all is the one between the Orthodox denominations of Ukraine and Russia.

I have been weeping internally here at my desk in Belarus: It appears to me that we are merrily gutting (scuttling) the evangelical witness for a bowl of porridge. To paraphrase the words of the German theologian Ilsegret Fink from 1967: We are our own worst enemies. Only we ourselves – and not any Bolshevist or Orthodox adversary – can destroy the good name of the (evangelical) church in the eyes of a watching (not just Western) world. A self-inflicted loss of credibility is the biggest loss of all.

It’s July and the big summer offensive planned for eastern Ukraine has not yet happened. Is the language presently so bellicose precisely because the weaponry isn’t? (Speaking in relative terms.) Is God suddenly going to bestow us with peace? Maybe only God can save us now. But a major hope I have is that God will save us, not from Putin’s Russia, but from our own folly.

Sergey Sipko shares an encouraging link on his Facebook page. In that video, conservative Orthodox journalist Maxim Shevchenko reports that both Protestants and Orthodox are doing wonderful rehabilitation work among the drug addicts of Russia. Miracles are occurring. “The Orthodox have nothing to fear from Protestants”, Shevchenko added. “It’s a provocation to call them sectarians. Deeds are what counts.” There are good people in both groups who, if they find a lost pocketbook on the street, will strive to find the owner. “We must cooperate with one another”, he assured. Nothing good comes out of theological fights. “We’ll let God decide that.”

Such are the glimmers of hope on a dark night.

1.722 words

A word about my last piece

My article on Penza was a report, not a commentary expressing my opinion. It’s often fine to let people have their say without cutting them short. That article was an informational report - this one is a commentary.

I was also criticised after the last piece for referring to a “Great-Ukraine”. I have also spoken of “Kiev-Ukraine”. I invented these terms because the neutral terms of West- and East-Ukraine are geographically imprecise. Mariupol and Kharkov are also in the east. I have used “separatist” too, but that term is problematic, for Maidan was also a separatist movement. I probably need to stick with the basically neutral “East” and ”West”.

Commentary on other news

1. On some matters, the Christians of Ukraine and Russia remain profoundly united. That is very clear on the question of gay and lesbian marriage. Their rejection of new US legislation passed by the Supreme Court on 26 June is virtually unanimous. East Europeans have conservative societies with no leeway for social experimentation. This fact offers Russians the opportunity to portray themselves as the last upholders of traditional, Christian family values in a post-Christian West. Ukrainian evangelical enthusiasm for the USA is not across-the-boards; the Ukrainian news service “Invictory” for ex. lauds the negative views on the Supreme Court ruling of leaders such as Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress, John Piper, Max Lucado and Pat Robertson. They and their supporters are the allies of Ukraine’s evangelicals.

2. The “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association” remains committed to positive relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. From April until June of this year, it and its daughter organisation, “Samaritan’s Purse”, cooperated with the Orthodox to distribute 58.000 aid packages to refugees in the Russian region adjacent to eastern Ukraine. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), the ROC’s head of external relations, explained: The Russian Orthodox Church remains open for cooperation with those Protestant denominations who “remain true to the Gospel’s moral teachings and the traditions of bilateral dialogue“. Cooperation is continuing to develop “in the protection of Christians experiencing duress in different regions of the globe, in the preservation of the Christian heritage and in the implementation of educational and humanitarian projects”. (Information from the Moscow news service “Protestant”.)

It is no coincidence that Hilarion was given access to Billy Graham in North Carolina last November 7 on the occasion of his 96th birthday.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 2 July 2015

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-07.